In Closing Stretch, Kathy Hochul Takes a Page Out of Terry McAuliffe's (Losing) Playbook

Dem governor's campaign resorts to shameless stunt as polls tighten in deep-blue New York

N.Y. Gov. Kathy Hochul (Getty Images)
October 27, 2022

Last October, Democratic campaign staffers in Virginia shamelessly promoted an obvious hoax in an attempt to save their faltering boss, gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, from an upset loss. Almost a year to the day later, history is repeating itself in New York. 

On Thursday morning, a rogue New York Post employee used the outlet's publishing system to share fake and crude stories, including one that said New York Republican gubernatorial hopeful Lee Zeldin planned to sexually assault his Democratic opponent, incumbent Kathy Hochul. The Post quickly declared it had "been hacked" and removed the fake content. For Hochul's campaign, however, the case was not closed. Roughly an hour after the Post's explanation, Hochul spokeswoman Jen Goodman released a bizarre response that appeared to present the hacked posts as legitimate, accused the outlet of using "violent, sexist rhetoric," and issued a "demand" for "answers." 

By taking the Post's hacked content at face value in an apparent attempt to prompt outrage, the Hochul campaign took a page out of McAuliffe's playbook. In October 2021, McAuliffe's campaign promoted a fake white supremacist demonstration at a Glenn Youngkin event as if it were real, using the bogus incident to call the Republican's supporters racist. If Hochul and McAuliffe's attempts to weaponize political stunts in their favor seem similar, that could be because Goodman was behind both of them. One year before she issued Hochul's Post statement, the liberal operative—who served as a McAuliffe communications aide at the time—called the sham neo-Nazi demonstration "disgusting" and "disqualifying" for Youngkin.

But Goodman's role in both ordeals is not the only similarity between Hochul and McAuliffe. In his 2021 race, McAuliffe entered October as the clear favorite to become Virginia's next governor, holding a clear polling lead in a state President Joe Biden won by double digits in 2020. But those polls went on to tighten, prompting Democratic concern two weeks from Election Day that McAuliffe could lose a race he was expected to win easily. As a result, when McAuliffe's staffers saw photos of the tiki torch-wielding attendees at Youngkin's rally, they likely felt too desperate for a boost to ignore them.

Almost exactly a year later, Hochul finds herself in an eerily similar situation. The Democrat consistently led Zeldin by double digits in the race's early months, but that lead has since slipped—just days before the Post hack, for example, a Quinnipiac University poll showed Hochul with a mere 4-point advantage over her Republican counterpart. Even the New York Times has taken notice: The Empire State's largest media outlet called the gubernatorial race a "rapidly tightening contest" in a Tuesday piece headlined, "New York's Governor's Race is Suddenly Too Close for Democrats' Comfort."

In McAuliffe's case, the decision to pounce on the fake white supremacist stunt backfired significantly. Democratic super PAC the Lincoln Project eventually admitted it staged the ordeal, prompting a wave of negative news coverage for the McAuliffe campaign just two weeks before Election Day. The Democrat went on to lose to Youngkin by 2 points. 

Hochul may very well avoid McAuliffe's fate, particularly given that Biden won New York by 23 points, 13 points higher than his Virginia margin. Still, even as Hochul's campaign publicly dismisses the "notion that Dems are lagging in enthusiasm in NY," its eagerness to spin the Post hack in Hochul's favor suggests the Democrat is feeling the heat in deep-blue New York.

Hochul's campaign did not return a request for comment.